Vijay Iyer, Part 1-2

Paul Olson By

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New York pianist/composer Vijay Iyer may be the musician of 2005. With his remarkable quartet and their fine new CD Reimagining, his collaborative, experimental trio Fieldwork (whose new CD Simulated Progress should turn some heads when it's released in July), his past and future collaborations with spoken-word/experimental hip-hop artist Mike Ladd, and his other ongoing projects, Iyer is undeniably active. He's also very, very good. I spoke with Iyer in Chicago a few hours before his quartet took the stage of the Green Mill for the second of their two-night run.

All About Jazz: Let's start with who you are. You're the child of South Indian immigrants to the United States and you grew up in upstate New York. You originally played violin. What pulled you to the piano and to jazz music?

Vijay Iyer: My sister, who's a few years older, was taking piano lessons; she started at the same time I started violin and so we had a piano in the house from the same time that I started playing violin. So that was already a part of my awareness, and I guess I just started screwing around on her piano when she wasn't practicing. That's just how I started playing piano, basically. I remember that she and I used to improvise duets when we were really little [laughing], and that for me mainly consisted of banging on the lower octave so hard that the instrument actually was shaking. That was really exciting to me. I still do that! And then, I guess in terms of getting into jazz—or this music known as jazz, this tradition—our high school had a jazz ensemble. You know, by the time I got to high school I was playing in rock bands and stuff, as well as playing violin in orchestras. So I was doing a lot of musical activities—the jazz ensemble looked like it was where people had the most freedom. Well, not freedom, necessarily, but—maybe prowess would be the word. That was something I craved, or wanted to find out more about, at least. So I tried out for it and the director said, "well, you don't know anything about this music, but you have a musical sensibility. I like your playing, but you have to learn about voicings and whatnot. He referred me to this local jazz pianist named Andy Calabrese and I studied with him; I think I had two lessons with him. He sort of set some things in motion and then I just starting checking out music from the library and it just built from there.

AAJ: On your second CD Architextures, in the liner notes, you wrote, "the music on this collection ... depicts what I have learned as a member of the post-colonial, multicultural South Asian diaspora, as a person of color peering in critically from the margins of American mainstream culture, and as a human being with a body, a mind, memories, emotions, and spiritual aspirations. That says a very great deal, but could you elaborate on this, and would it apply to the body of work you've produced in the seven years since you wrote those words?

VI: Yeah. It definitely applies. [Reaching for the list of questions] Let me look at these words one more time. It's funny, I guess I wrote those words when I was twenty-four [laughing]—okay?

AAJ: It's strange to be confronted with them.

VI: It is. But I totally feel the same way. And in a way, I felt that this needed to be said in order to frame what I was doing. Often I still find myself having to say the same thing. Saying that is sort of stating the obvious—I mean, it ought to be stating the obvious—in that being who I am, I should just be respected as an individual with a particular point of view. It was a way of trying to complicate a stereotype, where I was trying to confound people's assumptions about what I'm doing—what I might be up to. Really, just trying to set the stage for my point of view, which is what my music is expressing. And yes, I feel like this is all still very much the case; but, you know, having to say that I'm a human being—I would hope that six or seven albums later, I don't have to say that anymore [laughing]. "Yes, I am a human being, and all these kinds of things. In a way, at that point in my life, I felt like I needed to say that. I remember later, Gary Giddins described me as "full of words and himself. Which was not very flattering; I mean, that was in the context of a very positive article.

AAJ: Yeah, he likes you.

VI: Yeah, but I think he was responding to statements like that! I don't know, I feel like a lot has happened in these nine or ten years of making albums—not just to me, but just in general in the world. And now maybe it's more common to see South Asians. In particular, it's more common to see South Asians doing stuff in the world—being public figures, artists, being public intellectuals, or anything. Being in a state where they can actually speak to great numbers of people. But at the time [that he wrote the above words], I felt like I needed to state, for whoever was going to be listening and reading, that I am—a fact. That was maybe a verbose way of saying it back then, but I was twenty-four; maybe I was "full of words and myself" [laughter].


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